Jaxen has returned from Tranidor... but his caravan is much larger than anyone expected. Accompanying it are both strangers and unexpected friends. In some of the wagons are mysterious crates and packages, demonstrating that the guildsmen have not been idle while Garia, Keren and party have been absent from the capital.
by Penny Lane
75 - Gifts From Afar
Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2013 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.
"Milady, an army approaches! It is difficult to see because of the dust but there are many mounted men and wagons!"
Those seated all stood immediately. Garia looked at Keren with alarm.
"An army! Whose?"
"I don't think it's anyone we should be worried about, Garia. Tedenis, what exactly have you seen? Who was with you outside? Is the alarm raised?"
"Highness, Stott was with me, he has gone to warn the others. There is a line of wagons, about a mark distant before the bridge, approaching with mounted men either side. I cannot tell how many."
"Very good. Garia, come on."
As Garia followed Keren out onto the covered sidewalk she discovered that most of their armsmen were coming out through the carriage entrance, some settling their sword belts. She turned and gazed into the distance.
"Not military, I don't think," Keren remarked, his hand shading his eyes. "If they are, then not any of Palarand's that I recognize."
A cold feeling gripped Garia's gut. "Yod?"
"In such a fashion, through the center of our Kingdom? I think not! No, I believe you will discover that the leading vehicle is one you shall recognize. Remember, it is now seven days since Jaxen left, it seems he has met friends while in Tranidor."
Garia looked more closely and, as the procession approached the bridge, realized that the front vehicle was the special carriage which had been made for Captain Bleskin by Gilbanar. Further, the man riding beside the carriage was wearing green-on-green with others in palace colors riding the other side and behind. She gave an immense sigh of relief.
"It's Captain Bleskin and Feteran! But however many wagons are there? It might just as well be an army!"
"Beside the good Captain's special carriage," Keren replied, "I think there might be six or seven. It is difficult to see, they are throwing up considerable dust."
As the procession approached them Jaxen rode forward and spoke to Feteran, who conveyed a message to his father. The carriage pulled up in front of the Claw, the rest of the wagons halting in a line behind. Jaxen reined in in front of Keren and Garia.
"Highness, Milady," he acknowledged them with a grin, "we are returned, returned in strength. I apologize for leaving you waiting, we met friends in Tranidor and decided to travel here together."
"Apology accepted," Keren said, returning his grin. "I see you were successful?"
"Aye, Highness. I have brought goods for the town and fresh mails for almost everybody. I have a wagon filled with crates for Milady Garia -"
Garia's attention was fixed on the man climbing out of the carriage. He turned, dusted himself down and saluted them. Her emotions all welled up inside and her tears began to flow.
Damn stupid time to get all weepy. I didn't know how much I felt for him.
She stepped down into the road and walked towards Bleskin, wrapping herself round him as she had done once before. He was initially startled but then returned her hug.
"Pleased to see me then, lass?"
She stepped back and looked at him, wiping her face with the back of a hand.
"I am amazed to find that I am, captain." Her expression became serious. "You are in good health?"
"Aye, I am!" His own face showed calm. "Thanks mainly to your own efforts, milady. I have learned that while the dead must be mourned the living yet have needs. Jaxen told us of the foul events that happened before you arrived here. If I may be of any service, milady, then here I am."
"Oh, Captain, you shouldn't!"
"He insisted, milady," Feteran added, dismounting. He braced to attention and saluted. "Milady, since we have both arrived at your own lands I consider my detached duty to be ended. As you can see my father is himself again and insisted on accompanying us from Tranidor."
Garia smiled at him. "I'm pleased to have you back again, commander. You may resume your duties, although I would suggest you find out how we have gotten the Claw organized before you attempt much!" Her smile became humorous. "Mistress Sukhana is my housekeeper and she keeps strict order here."
Feteran looked confused. "The... Claw, milady?"
"Ah, yes." Garia waved a hand at the building behind them. "This is an old inn called the Ptuvil's Claw. It was derelict so rather than all squashing together in the Bell Inn opposite we took this over and made it our headquarters. We've plenty of room, easily enough for the men you've brought back with you."
"Highness?" Jaxen made them turn. "Not knowing the situation, I thought to send all the men up to the camp. Do you tell us there is enough accommodation?"
Keren nodded. "Aye, Jaxen. We have room enough for men, wagons and beasts. Direct ours here, if you would. Mistress Yanda awaits you yonder for your own needs, attend us if you are too many for her. Doubtless you shall join us when you have everyone settled? After the evening meal, perhaps. Mistress Sukhana has today produced the first beer brewed in the Claw for two years."
Jaxen looked slightly apprehensive. "My sister brews beer? Highness, the world has ended."
Keren grinned. "We have not tasted it yet so you may be correct. We'll see you later, then."
With a nod Jaxen turned his mount and rode across the street. Garia turned to Bleskin and Feteran.
"Come in, please! We have chambers for both of you if you so wish. Come in and relax a moment before you go and unpack. I'm guessing there's a story behind your appearance here." She turned to her waiting men. "Brazan, take the Captain's carriage through and get his stuff unloaded, please. There are wagons for us, get them into the courtyard as well. Have the Captain's, Feteran's and the men's mounts looked after, and you can turn the dranakh out to find our own on the mountainside."
Brazan saluted smartly and her men gathered around the carriage to dispose of it. By unspoken arrangement the four of Keren's men already billeted at the Claw took positions in front of the building as guard. Garia led the way inside. Sukhana was standing near the rear entrance, wiping her hands on a towel, her expression uncertain.
"Milady, I heard a fuss -"
"It's okay, Sookie! Your brother is back, with reinforcements it seems! Here, let me introduce you. This is Captain Bleskin, recently retired as head of His Majesty's palace guard, and this is Feteran, commander of my armsmen and coincidentally the captain's eldest son. Captain, Commander, this is Mistress Sukhana, sister to Jaxen and housekeeper to the Ptuvil's Claw while we are in Blackstone. Oh, and Sookie, since the Captain had an escort of men who are really His Highness's troops we have six extra to accommodate in addition to these two. I thought the Captain and Feteran could have those two other rooms at the top of the men's stair?"
Sukhana curtseyed and nodded. "As you desire, milady. I will have the chambers made ready for them." She turned to Bleskin and smiled. "Captain, welcome to House Blackstone. Milady has spoken fondly of you."
Bleskin blushed and smiled at Sukhana. "Mistress, I would expect no less from her. I hold her in like regard. We do not stretch your accommodation?"
"Oh, no, sir. Milady expected that her commander and His Highness's men might return and we have planned accordingly." She curtseyed again. "If you would excuse me, Highness, Milady, Captain, Commander..." She grinned. "Such a fuss, naming everyone! I must leave you, have your chambers prepared, adjust the amounts for tonight's meal."
"Yes, Sookie," Garia said. "I'm sorry, we've given you a lot of extra work."
"Not so much, milady. With your leave?"
Sukhana curtseyed again, turned, and went out the rear door. Bleskin turned to inspect Brydas.
"I feel I should know you."
Garia started. "Oh! Forgive me, my mistake! In the excitement I overlooked the introduction. This is Master Brydas, Master Smith for Blackstone and a member of the Town Assembly. He has been our liaison with the assembly while various matters were worked out."
"Bleskin," Brydas said. "It must be forty years."
"Aye, about that. I did not know you had come to Blackstone. Well met."
The two clasped arms and Bleskin turned to Garia and Keren.
"We are distantly related, Highness, Milady. Brydas must have been about six years old when I left Tranidor to serve His Majesty. Ah, that is, His Majesty's father, of course. I did not know what course his life had taken though I knew he had become a guildsman."
The smith stared at Bleskin with satisfaction. "I always looked up to you, captain. To serve the King, we all do that, but to serve the King at his palace meant much to those who stayed behind. I wished that I could do as much but fate had other plans for me."
Bleskin looked embarrassed. "Aye, well, the average guardsman is harder to mold than a lump of metal, I deem. To live in the palace is not so special as some would believe. We must sit down together, you and I, and catch up on each other's lives."
"Aye, with milady's leave we'll do that. Did you know that Mesulkin is here?"
"Mesulkin? Here? Of course, he was made Steward by the Lord Gilbanar, was he not? How fares he?" Bleskin noted the look on the faces of the others. "What? What has happened?"
Keren asked, "What is Mesulkin to you, Captain?"
"We are cousins, Highness. He is the older by two years. What has happened to him? Was he affected by the recent troubles in Blackstone? I must go to his side!"
"Easy, now, Captain," Keren said. "Mesulkin lives but is in poor health. You may visit him presently but first, I think, we must sit and exchange stories. Since we parted severally much has happened to each party, I can see that. There is much you should know about what has happened to us and in this town before we may do much more. Garia, shall you send for some pel?"
"An excellent idea, Keren. Jasinet? Would you ask Sookie to send fresh pel for five over? Thank you."
"Astonishing." Bleskin shook his head. "Milady, I cannot believe that you may encounter so much incident along your way." He smiled and his eyes twinkled. "Ah, that I were twenty years younger! I would have enjoyed such adventures as you and His Highness have experienced."
"Thank you, captain," Garia replied with a smile. "Although, there were one or two parts that weren't so pleasant." She wrinkled her face. "Like Holville, for example. Being threatened with crossbows when we arrived here wasn't fun either."
"As you say, milady," Bleskin agreed. "We may not only choose the fun when an adventure begins but must take whatever transpires. If I may ask, milady, what are your plans for the future now that Jaxen has returned?"
"I think I want to hear his story first," Garia decided, "and that will probably happen after we've eaten. He talked about bringing letters with him and there was also mention of a wagonload of... I'm not sure, exactly. Did Bezan, the mason, come with you?"
"Aye, milady, he did, with a troop of guildsmen and workers, to begin clearing that road station in the forest. He has come with us himself to Blackstone to report progress, milady, then he wishes to return to the site tomorrow with the messenger wagon." He looked around, remembered where he was. "I think he must have gone to the other inn with the wagonmaster, I did not see him after we arrived here."
Feteran nodded. "Aye, father, I saw him follow Jaxen. Milady, he has left his work party in capable hands."
"Did they find -" Garia stopped and shook her head. "No. Let's wait and hear first hand. Master Brydas, will you join us after the evening meal?"
"Milady, I desire to but I would spend some time with my daughter if I may. Senidet is physically recovered from her ordeal but cannot spend all her time with our neighbors, especially since Tedenis is now a servant of Blackstone."
"I'm sorry, I'm missing something. Your wife?"
"Dead these eight years, milady. I believe I have brought Senidet up reasonably well but she is a young woman and I am no longer equal to the challenge."
Keren asked, "Is there any way we may help?"
"Highness, I do not know. Let me speak with her, discover her desires."
"If there's anything you think we can do," Garia said, "let us know immediately. It is no fun being a single parent even on Earth."
"As you wish, milady."
Garia smiled. "You mentioned Tedenis."
"It would seem, milady," Brydas replied with an answering smile, "that Senidet and Tedenis are intent on reaching some kind of agreement between themselves. I would not be opposed to such a union, though if Tedenis leaves Blackstone as part of your retinue, milady..."
Garia's grin was large. "...they will both curse me forever for keeping them apart, is that what you mean?"
"Aye, milady. Doubtless some answer may be found to this riddle."
The front door opened and Yarling came into the room, stopping when he saw the group seated at the end table. He bowed.
"Highness, Milady. I noticed activity in the town and hurried back."
"Master Yarling, come and join us."
Garia introduced everyone and then explained that Jaxen had come back with a large party. The miner nodded.
"I saw the dust, milady, which convinced me something of the like had happened. Milady, I have now investigated the ground within easy walking distance of the town in some detail. It will take me some time, perhaps a day or two, to make certain of my findings and present you a formal report." He smiled, "I can tell you, however, that your belief in the existence of large quantities of coal was correct, and there is certainly enough for extraction to be worth our efforts. I would wait, however, before saying more before I have spoken with Jaxen. The transportation and eventual destination of what we extract may be as important as the actual extraction itself, milady."
"That's right," Garia said. "I think the whole point of bringing Bezan and yourself here was that you would consider the whole operation, not just getting the coal out of the ground."
"As you say, milady. Ah, with your permission, I would like to withdraw and clean myself up before eating. I know that the bath house will shortly have many women descend upon it, so..."
"Of course! I can see you've been scrambling about the hillsides. Go and jump in while you can have some peace. Um, come and join us after the meal, I'm expecting Jaxen to come over and tell us what he's been doing."
"As you command, milady." Yarling stood, bowed and left.
The door opened again and Jaxen entered followed by two men. They approached the others and bowed.
"Highness," Jaxen began, "we have filled the Bell completely and I thought it better if you could find space for these two travelers who came with us from Tranidor. This is Master Kardenar who is Tranidor's Messenger Agent and this is Selden who works for him."
"Welcome to Blackstone," Keren said. The two bowed again.
"Master Kardenar," Jaxen explained, "has come to explain to you the legalities of appointing officials able to run the messenger system, Highness, Milady. He may not remain long in the town because," a crooked smile, "of the increased mail now passing through Tranidor, no doubt in part due to your own presence here. He offers Selden as a possible Agent for Blackstone, with your approval."
"Then let me welcome you as well," Garia said. "Um, I don't know, Jaxen. About them staying here, I mean. Jasinet, run and fetch Sookie, would you?" She turned back to Jaxen. "We have six extra guardsmen and two more wagoneers as well as Captain Bleskin and Commander Feteran." She frowned. "Of course, the women's dormitory is completely empty and this isn't a proper inn any more but I don't know if we can use it that way."
"Milady," Feteran broke in, "If needs be I can share a chamber with my father, leaving the other for these gentlemen, if that is agreeable to both of them."
Garia nodded. "It will only be for a couple of nights at the most." She frowned again in concentration. "Where did Polbinar live? There's no accommodation at the Messenger's office."
"Brydas would know," Keren said, "but we will not see him again this day."
Sukhana came in the back door and curtseyed. She nodded to her brother and looked over the two men with him. "Highness, milady?"
"Sookie," Garia said. "The Bell is full and there is no room for these two who are Messenger officers. Feteran has offered to share his father's chamber the one or two nights we'll need to put these others up. Can we manage?"
Sukhana thought it over quickly before nodding. "Aye, milady." She sighed. "I'd better put more food on, then." She switched abruptly to her brother. "Got my saddle?"
Jaxen smiled and spread his hands. "Of course, dear sister! Did you think I would dare turn up here without it? It is in one of the wagons in your courtyard."
"Good. Then, Highness, Milady, if you would give me leave."
Sukhana curtseyed and left for the kitchen, grumbling about the change of numbers. Jaxen bowed.
"Highness, milady, I'd best be getting back to the Bell."
Keren rose as Jaxen disappeared and addressed the two newcomers. "I'll have some of my men go over and fetch your chests, gentlemen. While they are about that we can show you to your chamber. I regret that there is little furniture since this place was completely empty when we took it over barely a week ago. I think it is also time that Captain Bleskin and Commander Feteran were shown to their own room, perhaps to refresh themselves. We have kept them here almost a bell, I believe. I know the ladies will wish to change before eating."
Jaxen entered the front door of the Ptuvil's Claw to find the common room full of people. The bulk of these were guardsmen and armsmen just finishing their meals, most of them engaged in bringing their fellows up to date with their adventures while the parties had been apart. He noticed two tables at one end around which were gathered all the higher-status men and women involved in the current enterprise and turned toward them, waving a greeting to many of the men as he did so. Behind him the door opened again to admit Bezan and Yarling, who followed Jaxen toward the high tables.
"Jaxen! Bezan! Yarling! Glad you could join us." Keren waved an arm to indicate free space at the simple benches they all sat on. "Come, find yourselves a seat. Jaxen, your sister has the brewer's touch." He turned to the serving girl standing behind their bench. "Three tankards of ale for our hard-working friends, if you would."
The young girl bounced a curtsey and walked off to the alcove where Sukhana was rationing out the beer from casks set up against the rear wall. Once he was seated and had tasted his drink Jaxen returned his attention to the Prince.
"Highness, Milady. I guess you'll want to hear the whole story tonight. We left Blackstone as you know and made camp at that site with the burned-down buildings. Master Bezan began walking about and sizing the site up so I had some of my men make a discreet search of the surrounding woodlands. We found two shallow graves, Highness."
"Ah? As we suspected, then."
"Aye, Highness. After much discussion we decided to dig them out and find out what - and who - might have been buried there. The bodies were those of two men, Highness, but so degraded it would not be possible for any to recognize them. Their only clothing was undershirt and tights so we could not determine their station. We thought it best to rebury them for the time being, Highness, since we had no provision to take bodies in that state with us. The graves are now marked so may be found easily enough when the time comes for a respectful funeral."
Garia asked, "From the state of the bodies do you think these might have been there since before the summer? Could they have been the tax assessor and his manservant, perhaps, that Trogan robbed and killed?"
Jaxen shrugged. "Milady, I am no expert when it comes to bodies, especially old ones. Ah, I understand your question now. They are more likely to be of those men, milady, than of the party that Master Brydas sent out to obtain help, if that is what you suggest. That would not have been so long ago, would it?"
"That's what I thought," she agreed. "That means there might be two more bodies out there somewhere."
"As you say, milady. If that is the case then we will be sure to take better note as we pass through the route on future journeys."
"Let's leave the bodies for now. What next?"
"As we ate our meal that night Bezan and I had a long discussion about the route, milady. If we are to be carrying wagons laden with rock then Bezan was concerned that the road might not be particularly good for that purpose."
"Milady," Bezan explained, "you remember that the trade route climbed along the side of the mountain some way before the fork where the Blackstone road separated and then descended into the forest after that. The laden wagons would have to climb up to the fork, a difficult journey on a narrow road."
Garia nodded. "Yes. I have been thinking about that, as it happens. For the immediate future, we'll have no choice so building a decent road house there will still be necessary, I think. For the longer future I think we'll have to use another method."
Garia waved a hand. "Not important now. Go on with your story."
"So Bezan paced out how he thought the site should look and we left after lunch the following day," Jaxen resumed. "We stopped overnight at that other road house, you remember, the one where we picked up the mail?"
"Yes. Any trouble?"
"No, milady. The messenger service was never mentioned, nor Blackstone. We kept to ourselves to avoid too many questions. The following morning we set off as normal and arrived at Tranidor mid afternoon, where I discovered that some of your wants had been anticipated, milady."
"That's to do with those mysterious wagons out the back, then?"
Jaxen grinned. "Partly, milady. There was also another bag of mail for you and His Highness."
"Why am I not surprised? Go on."
"Why, then we went about our separate businesses, milady. Bezan went off to contract men for the works at the camp site and I discovered that Master Tanon had contracted with the Guild Hall for the immediate supply of coal, to be delivered to a new location near Palarand. Something called a 'blast furnace', I believe?"
Garia grinned. "That's right, Jaxen. Did he by any chance mention bricks at all?"
"Why, yes, milady! He said that he had found it necessary to set up a subsidiary business just to transport bricks to the site of this furnace. He speaks of thousands of bricks, uncountable thousands." Jaxen looked suspiciously at Garia. "Milady, what have you done?"
"This is a test site, Jaxen, just so that the guildsmen can figure out how the process works. They'll be making steel using the coal from Blackstone as one of the ingredients. Once they know what they are doing they'll set up larger blast furnaces but those will be nearer the raw materials."
Jaxen nodded. "That would make sense, milady. No point taking heavy materials like that a long way just to mix them together."
"As you say. You mentioned a coal contract."
"Aye, milady. To begin immediately, if at all possible. I have brought four wagons, including the ones your goods are in, to take the coal away in. It will prove to us if the road will be good enough to take the traffic."
"A good idea," Keren agreed. "Best we learn if this road is suitable for what is intended before we find ourselves too deeply in this business."
"Aye, Highness. So, then we began collecting the various needs of Blackstone ready to bring back here." He grinned. "Milady, I have two felt mats for you to tumble upon. The upholsterer who supplies Lord Trosanar had just finished an order for the castle and had materials ready to hand to make at least one mat. I asked if he could make two in so short a space of days and he did so, to our surprise." Another grin. "I wager we paid less for your mats than Lord Trosanar paid for his, too! It seems that the good Lord does not have the complete support of his people so does not obtain the best bargains."
"Interesting," Keren mused. "I didn't know that. Do you know why..? No, we may discuss that another time, Jaxen. Go on."
"Briefly, Highness, there is tension with the miners. As you say, another time. To continue, we have a wagonload of paint for the town and another filled with casks of smelly chemicals for the tanner. There are some bolts of cloth and notions for the draper. Various other items required by several of the townspeople. I have brought Sookie's saddle, a complete set of new pots and some other items she requested.
"The men were occupied most of the time but one day D'Janik was at the market with Keet and there they chanced across the Commander who thus discovered what had happened when we first came to Blackstone. I went with the Commander out to Dremso to meet Captain Bleskin and told them what I knew of the story and they both immediately decided that they wished to join you out here, milady. I tried to dissuade them but," he spread his hands, "here they are. It was necessary to delay our return by a day for them to get ready but considering all we accomplished in Tranidor I am surprised we didn't take longer."
Garia asked, "You have fully informed Master Kardenar about what happened here?"
"Aye, milady. As you once said, I am the nearest thing we had to an expert on matters concerning the service so I was able to tell him all that we found. He decided that, if I would have him, he would come to Blackstone and deal with the matter himself."
Garia nodded. "We'll deal with the Messenger Service tomorrow, I think. Let everybody have a good night's sleep after their journey. What are your future plans? I thought I heard you say that you were returning immediately."
Jaxen grinned. "To use your own expression, milady, yes and no." Garia stuck her tongue out at him. "There was a long discussion among the factors at the Tranidor depot and the arrangements have been changed slightly. Tomorrow, if all goes well, a kitchen wagon will begin the journey back to Tranidor taking those who cannot stay here any longer. Three days later, another will go, meeting the first wagon at the camp site on its way back. Thus, instead of one wagon traveling both ways and taking four days, we'll have two, giving a two-day service."
Keren frowned. "That doesn't sound right."
"No, Highness. I'm only sending the first one back tomorrow because Bezan wishes to return to the works and because Master Kardenar needs to return to Tranidor quickly. Normally I'd wait a day."
Garia looked at Keren. "Have we time to write more letters, do you think?"
"Not the kind of letters we wrote before, if that's what you mean. We could perhaps write short notes confirming that all is now well in the town. Our parents and Uncle Gil would appreciate that, I think."
"Yes. We'll do that. Jaxen, do you think you could delay the departure until after lunch tomorrow? If we have incoming goods to examine I might want to send off some more notes."
"Aye, milady, That's more or less what I had decided anyway. We can still manage the trip in time."
Garia switched her attention. "Bezan, any problems?"
"Not so far, milady. I have men clearing the ground to a bowshot around the site. Much of the timber we fell may be used constructing the buildings although we will require more. Highness, do you remember, on the original journey here, we discussed ownership of the forest? We will require more timber for the buildings than the immediate clearing will provide."
Keren nodded. "Aye, Bezan. You may take your timber on my authority, although it would be well to select from a wider area of the forest and not just clear-fell a section near the site."
"And," Garia added, "there's something I'd like you to start doing. Whenever you fell a tree consider planting some more to replace it. We're going to need a heck of a lot of timber in the future and trees take a long time to grow."
"Milady, you give us wise words. I shall consider what needs to be done."
Jaxen yawned. "With your leave, Highness, Milady, I will seek my bed. I have had a long day."
"Aye, you are right," Keren replied. "We should all turn in, I think. Tomorrow promises to be as busy as today has been."
Sukhana met Jaxen at the front door.
"You can brew a good cask of beer, Sookie, I will admit that."
"Aye, well, I had help from the townspeople. The next batch might taste entirely different. All is well? My saddle?"
"Fit for a lady to ride on, Sookie. I have brought a whole set of pots for you as well."
"Where are they? Can I get them out and use them for breakfast?"
"Probably not. There are wagons full of goods, all carefully and tightly packed. You know how we do this as well as I."
"I must be patient, then. Good-night, brother."
Garia rolled over and tried to open her eyes, shaking her head gently in the early morning light. Her sleep had been disturbed by another of those weird dreams and she had a foul taste in her mouth besides. She groaned and sat up.
"I thought it was me who was supposed to snore. You certainly showed me how it should be done."
"You haven't heard yourself, Merry! Ah, it'll be a hundred years at the earliest before I can get some recording equipment going and prove it to you. Ow."
She raised an hand to her head as her headache pulsed.
"Another of those peculiar dreams."
"What, with the multi-whatever creatures in it? What are they saying now?"
Garia flopped back onto her mattress. "I'm not sure. Most of the talk, and it wasn't actually talk, of course, these things don't speak the same as we do, most of the talk I couldn't understand at all. I think they are as far beyond us as we are beyond the bugs. Anyhow, one thing they seemed to be saying is that me turning up here as a girl actually produces a better outcome than if I had been a boy, which is what they intended in the first place." Garia rolled over and faced Merizel. "I'm not sure if I like the sound of that. There's only one thing I can do that Gary couldn't, and that's the one thing the King won't let us do."
Merizel considered this for a while and then said, "That makes sense. If you were a boy the most you could hope for would be to become the King's Questor or someone of a similar rank. You already are a guildmistress, after all. As a girl, you can marry the Prince which will make you Queen in time."
"Merry, I'm not even considering that at the moment! I just do not want to go there! I have enough problems as it is."
"...which being Queen might ease considerably, if you ask me. There is another aspect you might wish to consider, though. Being married to the King means that your children are automatically in the line of succession. That could never have happened had you stayed a boy."
"That's not entirely true. If I'd been the Royal Questor, say, and married, um, for the sake of argument you, then it's possible one of our children might have married one of Keren's children, so my grand-children would be in the line of succession." Garia scowled. "What's so special about my descendants, then?"
"The fact that they are descended from you, silly. And will likely be as smart as you are. And His Highness is."
"Oh. I hadn't thought of that."
Garia began to think about a possible future in which she married and became a mother. She shook her head.
"No! I do not want to think about that right now! That's crazy talk. Merry, I can't even consider that part of my future until we get back to the palace."
"But -" Merizel thought about the pressures and responsibilities which had suddenly become heaped on her friend. "As you say. I won't mention it again. But," she added, "you must tell His Highness what you have learned. It may be important."
Garia blushed. "What, that because I'm a girl I can marry him? He knows that already."
"No, about the creatures' plans being improved because you're a girl. It's another strong hint that there is such a plan, even if we may never be able to understand it."
A knock on the door meant the arrival of Jenet, Jasinet and Lanilla. The maids helped Garia and Merizel into fluffy robes and then the five trooped downstairs to the bath house to begin the day. The atmosphere in the bathing chamber was tense. Both of the local girls had initially been taken aback to be asked to climb into the tub with their employer. Apparently, in Blackstone it seemed that only family bathed that way. Lanilla had eventually been persuaded to enter with Garia and Merizel but Jasinet had seemed so uncomfortable that Garia had let her bathe with Jenet in future. The tub wasn't big enough for all five at once, in any case, so that separation was practical.
Bathed and dressed they entered the common room, already busy with activity. Most of the men stood as Garia entered.
"Sit, please! Look, I don't want you all standing just on my account, men. Especially not when you've already started eating. If we were to enter a hall all together for a formal meal then that's different. I understand that you're showing a sign of respect and I appreciate that but I don't think you need jump up every time I walk in a door. All right?" She smiled at the diners' faces. "Good, carry on."
Garia led the way to their table and curtseyed to Keren. He raised an eyebrow.
"You've just told the men off for showing you respect and then you do it to me."
"That's different, Highness. I'm the one showing respect but I'm not the one who's already eating."
He blinked and then gave a wry smile. "Are you sure you're not a lawyer? Please, sit." He looked closely at her face as she sat opposite. "Bad night?"
For some reason she felt defensive. "As you say. Strange dreams again."
"Not those, what did you call them?"
"Yes. Them." She was short, and wished he would change the subject. Merizel gave her a fierce look. Go on then, tell him!
"Ah?" He clearly wanted details. She shook her head.
"Mostly too incomprehensible. Look, my head hurts. Can we discuss my dreams later, please?"
"As you wish, Garia." He grinned. "So, aching to find out what's in those wagons?"
"Now you're being silly. Of course! It's just like Christmas, isn't it?"
There were blank looks around the table so Garia had to explain what a typical Christmas holiday might consist of in Kansas. Bleskin nodded.
"Milady, that sounds very like our Midwinter Festival. That happens on the shortest day each year and is usually a family affair with a certain amount, should I say, of feasting. The giving of presents is not a normal custom in these lands, though if someone visits relatives for the festival a small gift, usually of food, is often taken."
"I see," she responded. "Well, in our lands the exchange of gifts is fairly recent, I suppose, ever since people had more money and there were more things around to become gifts. It's gotten silly at home, anyway, with people feeling obliged to give presents even to relatives they don't really like. I'll be happy if that custom never happens here."
Her food and drink arrived and she settled down to breakfast. While eating she asked Lanilla to go and have a word with Brazan, who arrived at the end of his meal and saluted.
"Brazan. We have those two wagons to unload this morning so we'll have to skip combat practice today." His face fell. "Don't worry, Jaxen has told me he has two proper mats for our practice in future. They're on one of the wagons. We'll just do the Tai Chi and then I expect we'll take the rest of the morning organizing ourselves. Mistress Sukhana's saddle is in there as well so we'll probably be bringing Tixi out for a fitting."
Brazan grinned. "As you command, milady."
"Have you spoken to the Commander yet?"
Brazan nodded to Feteran, sitting further along their table beside Bleskin. "Aye, milady. I have explained all our arrangements and he has declared himself satisfied."
Feteran added, "Milady, I would name Brazan as my second, if you agree."
"I have no problem with that, Feteran. Tord would have been your original choice, I take it, but he's far away. I wonder how he's managing?"
"We cannot know, milady, but I assume he remains at the palace, looking after your double."
"Yes, Milsy! You're right. I guess the palace guard is looking after her the same way they looked after me."
"As you say, milady."
Outside Garia stood with the others and looked at the two wagons. Both were without frames with just tarpaulins stretched over the raised sides to protect whatever lay hidden beneath. She looked at the sky. There had been the occasional shower on previous mornings but not enough to halt anything they had been doing then.
"Tai Chi first. The wagons will have to wait."
The yard was filled with people this morning. Almost all of the servants who did not have immediate tasks were there as were all the armsmen and a growing number of townspeople. The two Messenger officers watched with amazement as Garia and Keren led everyone through the forms. Messenger Agent Kardenar spoke to Garia when they had finished.
"I have never seen the like, milady. We assumed at first that it was a kind of dance but it appears not."
"It helps you to clear your mind and prepare your body for the day ahead. It can make your muscles more supple and your joints more flexible. Anyone of any age may do it, as you have seen today. There are further moves one can learn which turns this simple exercise into a form of fighting without weapons but most people don't need those."
"As you say, milady. Is this practised in the capital, can you tell me?"
"In the palace there are many that do it," Keren told him. "It is likely that more will do it as time passes and that it will become common in our cities and towns. Are you interested, Master Kardenar?"
"I am become stiff of late, Highness, in the mornings, no doubt due to my extra years. If this may help my body then aye, I am interested."
"This would require two weeks or more of your time to learn properly," Garia said. "A pity you can't stay with us for longer."
"As you say, milady. Ah, have you forgotten that we need to speak before we return to Tranidor?"
"Not at all, Master Kardenar, but it will have to wait until we have emptied those wagons. I see Jaxen waiting for us, so shall we begin?"
Jaxen's men removed the tarpaulins to reveal that one wagon contained several crates of various shapes and sizes while the other had packages wrapped in canvas and packed in straw. Other small items had been wedged into the remaining spaces. Only one of the crates, the largest, was heavy and they were all carefully lifted down to the courtyard cobbles.
"These all have your name on them, milady," Jaxen said, "your title, actually. Do you want me to open them for you?"
The largest crate was carefully levered open and the small crowd gathered round the object, trying to figure out what it was. It appeared to be a cylinder of steel about two feet in diameter and a stride long. One end was a thick disc of steel which was fixed to the cylinder by heavy bolts while the disc which fitted the other end was secured by metal wedges which had been hammered into tabs poking out of the structure. On the further end a small pipe had been screwed which came down to a small nozzle.
Garia looked at Keren. "Do you have any idea what this might be? I can't imagine... wait a moment. This end comes off easy, right?" She looked round for Brydas. "Master Brydas, can you knock these wedges out for us please?"
"Aye, milady," the smith said, going off to the stable block to look for a hammer. When he returned it took little effort to knock the wedges out and release the loose end. Inside there was an envelope which Garia opened.
"Ah! Yes, that's obvious now I think about it." She addressed the crowd. "This is a special oven of the kind which will be used to turn coal into coke. You load it with coal and clamp the door shut, then heat it over a coal fire. The pipe with the jet on the end is used to allow the unwanted gases to escape. If we want to, we can trap the gases and burn them or distil them. Um, oh. There's a bit more technical information here." She nodded to Keren. "Good. We can demonstrate how the system works with this oven. We can even make some coke for Master Brydas to experiment with. Let's unpack some more crates."
The next largest crate held a gleaming brass steam engine. Everyone crowded round to admire the excellence of the engineering. Jaxen handed Garia a waxed canvas package which had been put inside the crate. She opened it to find a wad of drawings and a letter.
"Okay," she said as she read. "This is a new type of steam engine the metalworkers have thought up. Hum. There's some technical details I won't go into. Right. What we have here is a model of a much larger engine they are going to put in the palace. I'm not sure where it's going but I suspect it will be used to power the pumps which lift water up to the High Tower."
She suddenly giggled. "Keren, I've just realized! Parrel has written this letter with a typewriter! See, it's real easy to read. I'm so used to reading this kind of text at home it didn't hit me at first."
While Keren looked over the letter Garia examined the model engine. It had a cylinder each side driving a pair of flywheels linked by a shaft but there was a take-off pulley as well. The firebox was entirely inside the boiler, something she hadn't thought of and realized the guildsmen had worked out on their own. Above the boiler was a rectangular water tank with what looked like an injector connecting it to the inlet of the boiler. Both water tank and boiler had sight glasses to show water levels. The whole thing had been carefully made and polished so that it gleamed in the morning sun. Garia turned.
"Bezan! Bezan, I want you to see this in operation before you leave us. It might make a difference to your future ideas."
"As you wish, milady."
"Jaxen, can I ask you to delay your return?"
"Milady, that depends on Master Kardenar. It was he who wished to return at once to Tranidor."
Kardenar said, "Milady, I'm not sure what I am looking at here. This appears to be a very complicated device. Is this some new thing the guildsmen have invented?"
"Master Kardenar," Keren informed him, "this is a device from Milady Garia's home lands. It is she who has introduced it to Palarand, along with much else."
"Milady Garia? I don't understand. How can... excuse me, milady. How is it possible that you have such knowledge? You are but a young girl."
"I would go no further were I you," Keren said firmly. "In the land where Milady Garia came from such knowledge as this is known to all. Indeed, what you see here is an idea so old that they barely use such devices any more, having progressed to other ideas more suited to their society. Of her own free will she shares her knowledge with us, wishing to improve Palarand in many ways. The King fully approves and supports her."
"Highness, I did not know. I admit, I find this difficult to believe."
"As did we, Master Kardenar, until she showed us plain proof. Larger engines designed to use the same process as this one will make the mining of ores much safer and easier. Perhaps we shall see other wonders in these other crates."
"Highness, Milady," Kardenar said, "I would like to remain and see what else is here. Wagonmaster, I will be content should you delay our departure until tomorrow."
Brydas pushed his way to the front of the crowd, his eyes widening as he saw the engine. Garia smiled at him.
"This is one of the reasons we need the coal, Master Smith. The engine will run on anything burnable but coal is the best fuel. What do you think?"
"It seems a complicated device, milady."
"It's actually very simple when you look at it in detail. We can't build larger engines in brass because they would explode so larger ones will have to be made in steel. Here, you might as well take a look at the drawings Master Parrel sent along with the engine."
She thrust the drawings into his hand and his eyes widened again as he began to make sense of the diagrams. Garia, meanwhile, had turned to Jaxen.
"That long thin one next, I think. I bet I know what's in that."
The crate turned out to hold a telescope about half the size of the ones delivered to Dekarran. There was a tripod with it and it was soon assembled in the courtyard for the curious onlookers. Garia explained what it did and how to adjust the focus. A number of the audience had a look, aiming the scope at the mountain behind the town to see how it worked. Feteran was the last to try.
"Feteran," Garia said when he had finished, "at the higher end of the Main Street you'll find a large square building without windows. That's the cistern holding fresh water for the whole town."
"I think, if you climbed on top of that, you'd be able to see the entire valley, wouldn't you? Especially with this telescope."
"You're thinking of setting up a lookout post, milady?"
"Something like that. I know we shouldn't be in any danger out here but I feel a little unhappy that there's been no preparation at all."
Her commander nodded. "I'll look into it, milady."
Keren added, "Include my own men in your plans, commander. There are few enough of us as it is."
"As you command, Highness."
The next crate proved to be packed with waxed packets of new paper, all neatly stacked and bundled.
"Well, that solves our document problem for a while."
"Are you sure about that? The amount of letters we need to write -"
"- don't remind me!"
The following crate was about two feet on a side but not very heavy. When it was opened they all had a surprise.
"They've sent us a typewriter!" Garia exclaimed. "That's astonishing. I would have thought that they were too few and too valuable for one to be sent away like this."
"I think they were making a point," Keren suggested. "Also, perhaps, to convince those in Blackstone of your abilities."
"There's a note here," Garia said, pulling a waxed-paper envelope from the packing, "let me read it. Ah. It's improved over the designs we saw, Keren. We'll have to try it out." She smiled. "This note, naturally, was typed on this typewriter." She turned to Merizel. "Merry, I think this is meant as a gift for you. I think Master Jepp is going to be interested to see it."
Since everybody had questions about the strange machine it was necessary for it to be demonstrated there and then. One of the packets of paper was opened and a few sheets were fed through the typewriter. Garia discovered that not only had the mechanism changed but the order of the keys was different. It was enough to show everyone how the typewriter was used.
"What have we got left? What's that?"
The last crate was small and flat and contained something else unexpected - a framed mirror about the size of a sheet of paper. The unusual part was that the mirror, unlike the familar local ones of polished steel, was made from a silvered sheet of flat glass. This time it was the women who gathered round, Sukhana among them.
"Is that what I look like? How others see me?"
"It is, Sookie," Garia told her. "What do you see?"
Sukhana sighed. "An old, weatherbeaten woman, milady, with nothing left of any of the beauty she might once have had. I have spent too long on the roads."
"That's not so!" Garia protested. "You might not look like a teenager any more but you're certainly not an old woman yet. Yes, you've had a little too much sun but that will soon go over winter. There's nothing wrong with you, Sookie."
"Milady, you say the kindest things."
As the women were apparently coming to blows to view themselves in the mirror Garia gave instructions for it to be set up on a wall in the women's dormitory so that all could make use of it.
"What about us, milady?" Tedenis asked.
"What about you? Do you not know how handsome you are already?"
Tedenis blushed. "Milady, you jest, but sometimes it may be useful to see if we have cut ourselves shaving or if our hair is appropriate to the occasion."
"Then I'll move it into the common room, Tedenis, so that you can all admire yourselves - but not until us ladies have had a fair chance at it."
Instructions were given for the other items to be stored downstairs in Sukhana's quarters, much of which she was not using.
Brydas asked, "I have never seen a piece of glass so large and yet so flat, milady. Is this also from you own lands?"
"These are my lands now, Master Brydas, but yes, you are right. We can make flat sheets of glass many strides in width and length."
The smith fell to one knee. "Milady, Guildmistress, if I did not already agree that you were entitled to that rank, then I would do so now. Now that I have witnessed your gifts to us I fully understand why you were awarded that rank despite your tender years. Command us, guildmistress."
At his words Bezan and Yarling had also fallen to their knees and many of the others did so as well. Garia was embarrassed by the display.
"Rise, please. My knowledge of all of this is nothing special where I come from. All I'm doing is what I can to pass what I know along to Palarand."
"You are a true treasure, guildmistress, and we shall attempt to ensure that you remain under our protection so long as you reside in your town. You have already done much for Palarand by these things we have been shown today."
"Thank you all. But we have another wagon to unpack yet."
"I should hope so," Sukhana said. "Fancy gadgets are all well and good but where's my saddle?"
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